We’re Never Our Own Boss

Even freelancers depend on other people

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Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

As long as it’s not your tax return, being self-employed looks good on paper and it sounds even better as a boast because it implies freedom.

Ah, freedom.

The freedom to run your schedule as you see fit is a non-negligible advantage you taunt your wage slave Facebook acquaintances with. Because, by that point, you so seldom make it out of your house that you no longer have friends. Or indeed anyone left in your contacts whom you’ve ever met face to face.

But hey, you’ve arrived, you’re your own boss, the big cheese who calls the shots, works when they want to and gets to play as often as they like, too.

Only it’s all an illusion you perpetuate to make yourself sound that little bit more accomplished than you actually are.

In practice, you’re so anxious about making ends meet you even sacrifice rest to monetize as much of your time as possible.

You’re so obsessed with survival you’ve forgotten how to live, what it’s like to go for a walk outside, have a conversation without screens, hug someone.

You’re loath to admit it because it contradicts your origin story as a self-made entrepreneur but you, too, are dependent on others.

A freelancer needs clients, retainers, and commissions. And even if you’re a blogger and “write for yourself” (which is an oxymoron as writing is by definition a people-focused pursuit unless you’re writing a journal) you’re dependent on one or several platforms, such as social media.

In short, you’re dependent on the internet and, most of all, you’re dependent on the people who use the internet, especially if the bulk of your income is based on the audience engagement model.

This is why you never power down your devices; this is why you chain yourself to your desk seven days a week despite telling everyone your time is your own.

Bar for when you’re asleep or under the shower, your fingers are tickling a touch screen or a keyboard. You live in fear of your luck running out; you live in fear of being exposed as a fraud; you live in fear of homelessness and hunger.

Basically, you live in fear of somehow not being able to support yourself and those who depend on you, if there are any fellow creatures who do.

Even cats need money to live, or rather, staff who earn money to keep them in kibble.

The only way to be your own boss is to not have to work to live.

When you’re free to pursue projects purely for the thrill of it without any care about how or if you get compensated for your work, life looks quite different. Then again, if you’re independently wealthy, you’re not concerned about impressing others.

Bragging about being your own boss would be as distasteful as admitting you have to earn a living; those concerns aren’t familiar to you.

Meanwhile, we lowly serfs fit into two distinct categories bound together by mutual disdain.

And yet, we so-called wage slaves and we alleged own bosses are the same side of the same coin; we both gloat about the perks of our chosen method of enslavement and believe we have it better than the other side.

Granted, there’s freedom in having no one to give attitude to on a daily basis and in being under no societal obligation to shower regularly. But then again, there’s also freedom in being able to take care of yourself when you get sick and in knowing where your next paycheck comes from.

We tell ourselves the lies we need to hear so we can keep our spirits up.

That’s a basic coping strategy: When the script doesn’t fit, flip it and rewrite.

If we’re being realistic, rare are those who successfully combine passion, livelihood, and financial security for any length of time, and much less as a career. Not that it should stop us from trying to make it work but we should be honest about what sacrifices this entails.

For example, if what makes your heart beast faster is in any way dependent on coming up with exciting, fresh ideas on a daily basis, you’re never off. Even when you’re not working, you’re thinking about work and how you can improve what you do or take it into different directions.

In that sense, vocation can get obsessive and even harmful when it doesn’t afford you peace of mind.

When the specter of hardship is taking up much of your mental bandwidth, this isn’t helpful for mental health or indeed creativity.

This is why being one’s own boss isn’t always the best option for those who need a modicum of stability in their lives. Do not underestimate the ability to have a good night’s sleep without wondering how you’re going to support yourself.

This has been my life since 2004, a life of freelancing in media and travel with a brief stint as an employee.

In that time, I lived in worked in several countries and some unusual remote locations, I immigrated to the US, and major depressive disorder felled me. This was by far the worst thing that could happen.

When you’re a freelancer whose livelihood illness has destroyed, being your own boss doesn’t mean health care. Not even when you have insurance, which is worthless when you’re facing eviction, eat only one meal a day, and utilities keep getting cut off. Because there’s no way you can afford the co-pays for much-needed ongoing therapy, that is to say support and guidance to help you get back on your feet.

Instead, it means being left to hold your own hand for five years and trying to find the wherewithal not to die when it looks like the only viable solution. It means rebuilding a new life from scratch, one word at a time, and hoping this will be enough to show potential clients and employers what you’re made of. So they don’t focus on the five-year crater on your résumé and mistake you for an unreliable, self-indulgent, lazy slacker.

Because mental health stigma sticks, and I’ve spent the last year doing all I can so it doesn’t stick to me or indeed to anyone else.

Technically, I’m my own boss. But in practice? I’m a long way from achieving the kind of self-sufficiency that might lead me to declare, hand on heart, that I depend on no one; that’s simply unrealistic.

Whether we’re employees, entrepreneurs, or self-employed, we’re all beholden to other people in some way.

Ideally, this very fact keeps us accountable, down-to-earth, and prevents us from becoming insufferably pretentious and thus quite unpleasant to work or collaborate with.

I’m a French-American writer and journalist living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.

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